Radiohead has returned at long last with its ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool. The Oxford band has created a monolithic reputation for itself in the realm of rock music for its noncompliance with music industry norms and consistent success at reinvention over the span of a 25-year career. In light of Radiohead’s impressive discography, the odds are against any current release living up to expectations, but the band has once again risen to the challenge with some of its best work to date.
Throughout the album there is intense anxiety—not only lyrically but also musically with heightened use of string and choral arrangements. At times this anxiety seems to stem from romantic hardship, and, given the context of frontman Thom Yorke’s recent divorce from his common-law wife of 23 years, this could be the closest he has come to autobiography. It would be no far stretch, however, to assume a political inspiration for much of the paranoia found on the album, as Yorke seems to address the fear and panic driving much of the conversation in the current political climate.
The listener is often left wondering if Yorke is addressing a lover or the populace, making the album a sort of Rorschach test. The spaces in the margins that leave room for interpretation display what Radiohead has always been best at: tapping into deep shades of human experience with moods and textures rather than specific stories.
In the midst of the walls closing in on Yorke’s anxious state, there is tension between the will to keep fighting or to just give in to complacency. Tracks like “Decks Dark” or “Present Tense” flirt with the idea of surrender and defeat. Two songs—the revelatory “Desert Island Disk” and the environmentally inspired “The Numbers”— serve as musical and lyrical foils to the idea of defeat, using folk rock reminiscent of Neil Young to contrast with the darker shades of the rest of the album and provide an anchor of self-assurance and clarity.
The flip-flopping between surrender and perseverance throughout A Moon Shaped Pool makes the last track, “True Love Waits,” all the more harrowing as Yorke pleas for somebody to keep fighting, arguing that if this love is real it cannot be given up so easily. He sounds worn out, defeated, and exhausted while he repeats the words “don’t leave,” to end the album, but he’s still singing them nonetheless. He’s still fighting. (XL Recordings)